Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Douglas Dixon for the May 4, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In Video, It’s Prose Versus Amateurs
by Douglas Dixon
In the 1980s the Apple Macintosh popularized graphical interfaces, and
professional graphics designers were horrified to discover that
ink-jet and laser printers had magically transformed us all into
instant experts in typography and document layout.
Then in the 1990s, professional photographers and graphics artists saw
their expertise similarly devalued as powerful computers and consumer
software, combined with inexpensive digital cameras and scanners,
allowed us all to become photo enhancers and image artists.
Now the march of progress has reached video producers and editors, as
any kid in the basement can use consumer-accessible equipment to shoot
and edit commercials, corporate events, and even independent films.
In the face of the unstoppable digital revolution, and with this kind
of low-cost competition, why has Burkewood Communications chosen to
expand its Princeton-based video production business? And since
everyone knows that you need to be in L.A. or New York to do high-end
broadcast and film production, why would Burkewood also be adding a
new post-production facility, Deep Post, based on Mapleton Road just
off Route 1?
What Burkewood is doing is to position itself as a high-end facility,
offering New York or L.A. quality talent to clients (including
Bristol-Myers Squibb and MasterCard supported by appropriate
investments in professional tools.
"It is not about technology," says Burke Wood, president, "It’s about
talent. Clients will invariably try something different, something
cheaper, but it’s the talent that will keep them coming back. You have
to stay on top of technology, but it’s really about coming up with
something that makes your client look good."
"We help them distinguish themselves," he says. "Editing is one thing,
but then putting the polish on it is another. We can take a project
that looks pretty straightforward, and we can put the gloss on and
then all of a sudden it looks like it belongs on [ABC News] 20/20.
We’re all about providing clients with a very high-quality looking
project. We’re not about the Madison Avenue or L.A. sticker shock."
The trick, then, is to be able to provide that high level of creative
talent when clients demand it, but without needing to maintain a large
permanent staff. The typical solution for production companies is to
have a pool of local freelancers that can be called in for specific
jobs. Burkewood has a deeper approach, building relationships with
creative talent that it can represent when bringing in new work.
Burkewood starts with five people on staff: Burke Wood as president
and director, Gregg Suskin as executive producer and writer, Peter
Casale as production manager, David Stone as hands-on video editor and
artist, and Matt Pona, assistant producer/editor. Then develops
relationships with other directors and visual effects artists to add
to its roster.
"Burke is an extremely talented director," says Suskin. "He does
really good jobs on interviewing people, on getting performances. He’s
particularly good in comedy. We brought in another director who brings
in a more youthful element, so we’re adding talent and are not
conflicting with ourselves."
"It’s a symbiotic relationship through representation," says Wood.
"You have the rapport and relationship with this guy, and he becomes
like a family member. He’s also getting jobs on his own, and bringing
his jobs into our house for production support. It’s like how a
general contractor builds a house."
But how can you do business outside the major cities, when clients are
used to coming in to the edit suite to oversee their productions?
Burkewood uses the Internet to stream videos of the edited clips, or
even live videos of the editing sessions, for example, to clients in
"People are trying to run leaner and meaner," says Wood, "and I think
we dovetail into that. We do it a little smarter, a little more
cost-effective. We stream right from the edit monitor while we are
editing, and we have the client on the phone at the same time."
"The boundaries used to be at Madison Avenue," says Suskin. "Those
barriers are gone with live streaming." After all, it’s a huge cost to
the client to have four or five people visiting the edit studio all
"The clients love it," says Suskin. "We have a relationship with them;
the most important thing is that they trust us, and they know we do
good work. But often clients are testing themselves and asking whether
it really makes sense to work with a company up there in Princeton. So
they go across the street for a project, and they find out that it’s
more of a hassle than just turning on your computer and watching." And
clients are traveling all across the country, so it’s more efficient
to have the edits available anywhere, on a desktop or laptop.
But why Princeton? For Suskin, his New York company had grown too
large, and now he can start over with a smaller company closer to his
home, but still in a premier location.
"I was a founding principal of Blue Rock Editing in New York," says
Suskin. "But I lived down here, and I found Burke, and thought he was
on a great track here. He has a really good client base of his own,
and had made good choices in the high-end equipment he was putting in.
He didn’t go the cheap route, and that excited me."
"At my company in New York, we started with three people, and when I
left we had 88. I sold my stock in that company, I couldn’t do it
anymore. I would walk down the hall and people wouldn’t know who I
Moving outside New York also provides huge cost savings. "The prices
in New York are based on companies spending $40 a square foot," says
Suskin, "and that’s just for starters, just to open up in the morning.
Our place was featured in Architectural Digest. It was five stories in
midtown Manhattan, with a circular staircase."
"One of the big differences that enables us to stay cost-effective is
that you are not dealing with that flavor of the month mentality," he
says. "If you are a New York ad agency, you feel an obligation to go
with the hip name of the month, which brings the prices up. Our
postproduction prices consistently start at least 25 percent lower,
and sometimes much more than that. A major 30-second television
commercial would be in the $10,000 range, where a comparable New York
City facility would be in a $25,000 range. In the city you could pay
$1,500 an hour for a top editor."
But if you’re after cost savings, and the Internet allows you to be
located anywhere, why set up shop in Princeton, rather than Podunk?
"We like the quality of life out here." says Wood. "We want our
facility to be the kind of place where people enjoy coming. Princeton
is very special, and there’s a lot of intelligent and cultured people
down here. People all over the country recognize that when I’m
traveling, that it’s beautiful, and you can get out of the rat race.
We can go out to lunch in downtown Princeton, or relax and go for a
long walk along the canal. It’s very creative; it’s a great way to
build a relationship with people. You’re not armed to the teeth."
The location is also great for attracting talent. "You go over to
Princeton Junction in the morning," says Wood, "and there are a lot of
people in our business getting on the trains in the morning."
"We pride ourselves on the creative edge that we have with the New
York talent," says Suskin, "There are people in this area that have
won every award. They’re fed up with the way things have been done in
the past, and they’re looking to go smaller, not bigger, and looking
to remain creative."
Burkewood uses its high-end creative talent to attract high-end
customers, which in turn helps to retain that talent. But the staff
also needs the appropriate technology to work efficiently, to separate
Burkewood from the proverbial kid in the garage with a Macintosh.
Over the past few years, Burkewood has made significant investments in
professional-grade tools. Burkewood now has four Media 100 i/xs video
editing systems (www.media100.com). These work with full-quality
uncompressed video (too much data for desktop systems), providing a
faster and more efficient workflow for quick rough cuts or editing of
long form material (for around $30,000 to $50,000). And Burkewood has
acquired two Discreet Smoke video editing and finishing systems
(www4.discreet.com/smoke), which provide real-time response for
building visual effects, including keying, lighting, 3D positioning,
and color correction of multiple layers of motion video, graphics, and
text. The Discreet systems cost around $150,000, but a full edit suite
more like $250,000, with consoles, tape decks, air conditioning, etc.
"It’s not just a matter of buying the right technology," says Wood.
"There are not many people working with Discreet products in this
area, because all the best talent pursues Discreet products, and they
have been traditionally based in very high end post facilities. Our
attitude was that we bought Discreet products because they’re the
best, and the best people want to work on them. And then we attract
people of like mind, that don’t necessarily get off on the whole New
York or L.A. thing."
More responsive equipment also provides more creative flexibility.
"When you have this equipment you’re not limited by anything," says
Suskin. "If you have an idea that you want to try out, you can go in
there and just experiment." In comparison, when you’re working at an
outside facility and paying a hourly rate for the edit suite, "the
editor or the producer are very cautious about what they say," he
says. "If they come out with a great idea, the clients say ‘I can’t
pay for that,’ but they still want to see it. A lot of times, editors
just keep their mouth shut. And that’s just not fair to the project,
and it’s not fair to the client."
"We take it to a different level," says Wood. "The clients see how
much you put into it, that you went the extra mile, and they come back
And the kid in the garage? Yes, a really creative person can create
great work with a desktop tool like Adobe After Effects, even in a
garage. But, says Wood, "our machines are so much faster, and so much
more responsive. With After Effects, it’s come back tomorrow. Our
clients have tight deadlines; they want to see the change in an hour.
After Effects is a great tool, very powerful, but very time consuming.
We were getting fairly decent results, but something that takes us a
day now used to take four to five days. We were working around the
clock trying to compress time. We were dying."
"We would leave at six or seven o’clock and start it rendering," says
Suskin, "and then come back in the morning and then ‘whoops, oh my
God, we have to start all over again.’ These are things that start-up
companies face, the learning curve. But you only get one shot with a
client. Then you’re on the phone trying to explain to somebody that
doesn’t know an f-stop from an F train. They don’t care – they have
the meeting, a client is going to be here. You can’t work that way."
"People don’t know the commitment that it takes to get into this
industry," he says. "They think that because the price of some of
these technologies has come down that I can buy a box and I am in
business. That’s not what business is about. I don’t care how good a
lawyer, or a doctor, or an editor, or a director you are, it takes 10
years to be great at something. These colleges are turning out
communications majors by the truckload. They think that they’re going
to get a camera and a Mac, and they think they’re in business. ‘If you
give me this job, I’ll go out and get the camera and the insurance.’"
"It doesn’t work that way, you have to be for real. Companies that are
willing to make a commitment to you, they want to see the commitment
from you. They want to see that you are going to be there tomorrow,
and the day after."
Burkewood Communications was founded in 1986 by Kate Burke Wood,
Burke’s mother, to focus on producing programs for corporate and
institutional clients. Burke’s father, John Wood, then left a
marketing position with Merrill Lynch to join the company to manage
Kate Wood had begun her career in education after graduating from
Wellesley College, serving as college placement advisor and head of
the upper school at the Kent Place School in Summit. "She got into
production out of necessity," says Wood. "She wanted to do some cable
programming for families." In 1979 she founded and served as executive
director of the Educational Consortium for Cable, producing
award-winning programs on family issues.
As his mother was re-focusing on commercial production, Burke
completed his degree from Skidmore College in political science, and
joined Burkewood in 1987, when the company also relocated from Summit
to Princeton. "I got involved as a production assistant, and slowly
learned what was going on."
In 1994 the Woods decided to focus more on higher end commercial
projects under the name Burkewood Films. "Communications seemed like
such a vague word," says Wood. "I was well into directing, and I was
so longing to work in film. Everyone wanted to shoot film: the people
doing corporate want to do film, and the people doing 35mm wanted to
do features. Everyone wants to climb up the ladder. No one is happy
doing the same thing for too long, because you want to grow."
But now, he says, "film is not such a cool word. People are more
progressive, and it sounds a little old-fashioned. We’re going back to
our roots in Burkewood Communications; it can incorporate everything
that we’re doing, including our postproduction side as Deep Post."
In 2002, Kate Wood produced Alphabet Road, a children’s programming
series developed in a joint venture with GoBabies, Inc.
(www.gobabies.com). This was the first American children’s program
aired on Afghan Television. Kate also is a producer of FireDancer, the
first Afghan film to be admitted for an Academy Award nomination, and
a 2003 Tribeca Film Festival selection.
Kate Wood and Burke Wood are involved in the "big picture" development
of the company, and working on Alphabet Road. "I try to keep her out
of the nitty-gritty," says Wood. "We go for triples and home runs with
her, and Greg and I work on the singles and doubles."
In January, Burkewood opened its Deep Post video post-production
editing and finishing "boutique." "I had always relied on outside
companies for post," says Wood. "They charged $75 or $50 an hour, and
if you’re not working on a big budget to begin with, that’s soaking up
a lot of bucks. After beating my head against the scheduling board at
local facilities I finally said, this is silly, the Media 100 isn’t
all that expensive, I’ll pay it back in a year, and I’ll be able to
work as much as I need. I bought a second one about three years ago."
But even with the editing systems, Burkewood was still going out of
house for post-production finishing work. "We had such a volume of
work," says Wood, "and were sending so many dollars out the door. I
finally figured I had to make the leap and bought the Discreet
"When you get your own system," he says, "you can put a lot more
attention to it. You really are able to put love into a project, and
not feel like every hour it’s money down the drain."
The next challenge for Burkewood is growing the business, the old
fashioned way. "If it was easy everyone would be successful and
wealthy," says Wood. "I’ve been in this market for 15 years battling
it out and building this company. We need to get the word out, that we
are here, and we are ready."
And that takes persistence. "With my best clients," says Suskin, "it
took me two, three, four years of calls to get in the door. The plant
your seeds, you water them, and then six to eight months later
something sprouts out of the ground. They may not have something for
me today, but they’ll go to the website. And the next time they have
an assignment, they’ll call and say ‘I need a favor.’ They don’t call
you because you have great talent or great equipment; they call when
they need you. And when they call and you perform, then you’re in
But what Burkewood is selling is the quality of the results, the look,
the "gloss" that takes a straightforward video edit to a whole new
level. "It has to do with experience and taste and talent," says Wood.
"It takes artistry. You can look at something mediocre, and say it’s
good enough, just put a little glow on it. But I want the glow to
emanate from here, and I want the light source to be here, so the
shadow kicks this way.
"If you look at my 1-800-Flowers spot," he says, "you’ll see the gloss
on it. First, the cuts are good, I chose the content carefully, and
then on top of it, the gloss. Then you have something. That can take
something that looks straight and make it look gorgeous."
For example, Burkewood was working on a political spot with the
typical scenes of the politician meeting voters, combined with
overlaid text to emphasize the message. A customer would then ask for
the spot to look better, using instructions like: "make it high-end
looking," or "give it a graphic look," or "elegant or clean," or
"beautiful and readable, accessible, with artistic design."
In the Burkewood spot, the result was a feeling of dimension, as
multiple layers of video and text elements were composited together,
in motion, into the final effect. The central video scene was framed
by motion graphics and video backgrounds, and emphasized by the text,
also in motion. And all the elements were subtlety improved, from
color-correcting the different video clips to match visually, fading
and framing the background video, adding shadows and glints to the
overlays, and the careful composition so that the motion elements
never obscured the important elements in the main video. Gloss also
can include other behind-the-scene video clean-up and enhancement,
including "rig removal" to "erase" unwanted elements from a scene,
even while the camera is in motion.
"You can look at workmanship and craftsmanship that you know from your
life," says Suskin. "If your car gets in an accident, you could just
spray paint it, but you would know the difference. I’m the biggest
pain for any craftsman who does work for me. Someone puts tiles down
in the bathroom, and I look at it and see something. And they’ll say,
‘who’s going to see that?’ Well, I see that."
"It makes such a difference when you look at a finely built house,"
says Wood. "You look at a certain houses, and there’s no finishing
trim. But if you look at a really nice house, it has the the dentals,
the cove molding, the crown. It’s not a piece of junk, with an asphalt
roof and 2 X 6 finishing. You can tell they put a lot of TLC in it."
So the challenge now for Burkewood is to position itself as a small
but premium facility, here in Princeton.
"We don’t have to be huge to be successful," says Wood. "Everything is
right here. If the customer has a question about pricing or service, I
know exactly what’s going on. In this business clients get nervous
when you’re choking away at an hourly rate, especially with a smaller
budget. Being small and focused on service serves us well."
"We are involved in really high level projects," says Suskin, "like
IMAX film, children’s programming, political work, and corporate work.
We’re doing it across the board, at the highest levels. When you get
repeat clients, then you know you’re doing something well. It’s human
nature to try something else, something new. When they come back, you
Burkewood Communications Corp., 5 Mapleton Road, Suite 301, Princeton
08540. Burke Wood, managing director. 609-520-0090; fax, 609-924-9076.
Home page: www.burkewood.com
Doug Dixon’s Manifest Technology website (www.manifest-tech.com) has
reviews and commentary on computer and consumer electronics
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